Pristine parkland, magnificent wildlife, and the towering Denali are highlights of this national park.
The granite spires and snowy summits of Denali National Park and Preserve straddle 160 miles of the Alaska Range and display so much elevation they are often lost in the clouds. Dominating this skyline is North America's highest peak; Denali ascends majestically to 20,310 feet and is one of the most awe-inspiring sights in Alaska. Approximately 400,000 intrepid travelers journey to Denali National Park and Preserve each year, primarily between late May and early September.
It’s not just the mountain that makes Denali National Park and Preserve a special place. The park is also home to 37 species of mammals, ranging from lynx, marmots and Arctic ground squirrels, to foxes and snowshoe hares, while 130 different bird species have been spotted here, including the impressive golden eagle. Most visitors, however, want to see Alaska's "Big Five" animals in particular: moose, caribou, wolf, Dall sheep, and the brown, or grizzly, bear. See all five in the park, and visitors score what is called a “Denali Slam.” Denali is also home to black bears that inhabit the forested areas of the park, while grizzly bears mainly live on the open tundra. Most of the bears seen by visitors along the Park Road are grizzlies.
Unlike most wilderness areas in the country, you don't have to be a backpacker to see this wildlife - people who never sleep in a tent have excellent opportunities to get a close look at these amazing creatures roaming free in their natural habitat. Narrated bus tours take you along all or some of the 92-mile Park Road and offer some of the best opportunities for wildlife viewing in the park. The buses’ naturalist guides are experts at spotting wildlife and will provide ample time for wildlife viewing stops along the way. More information on tour busses can be found below.
Denali has so much to offer - whether you’re hiking, biking, camping, rafting, fishing, wildlife viewing, or flightseeing.
Climbing Denali, the tallest mountain in North America and one of the world's seven summits, is a dream goal for many mountaineers, but an easier - and dramatic - way to tour Denali National Park is through a stunning flightseeing or glacier landing tour of the Alaska Range. These flights depart near the park entrance or from the charming mountaineering town of Talkeetna, and are a fantastic way to take in the park’s spectacular sights from the air, especially if you don’t have time for a bus tour on the Park Road.
Visitors can take bus tours into the park starting mid-May – or travel at your own pace hiking or biking the Park Road. The majority of the 92-mile Park Road is not open to private vehicles, so the best way to explore the park is by bus. There are two types of buses into the park: narrated tour buses and non-narrated transit buses. Tour busses are narrated by onboard naturalists and take you to the top sightseeing spots along the road, pausing for wildlife viewing along the way. Half-day and full-day options are available depending on how far you want to travel along the road. Transit buses are hop-on, hop-off and are designed for campers and hikers who want a more independent experience of the park. These buses are cheaper and do not include narration. There are also free buses that follow a circuit through the park entrance area and out to Savage River, at mile 15 of the Park Road, allowing you to access most of the area’s designated hiking trails without a car.
The annual Denali Park Road Lottery in September allows visitors to drive their private vehicles on the Denali Park Road on select days. Make reservations for Denali National Park bus tours in advance and check the Denali National Park website for up-to-date visitor information.
Staying in & around Denali
Most visitors to Denali National Park stay at the many hotels, lodges, and cabins located near the park entrance. These accommodations typically provide shuttle service to the park and can arrange tours and other activities in the area. If you’d like to stay in the park there are 6 designated campgrounds, from Riley Creek Campground at the park entrance to Wonder Lake Campground near the end of the road. Half of the campgrounds are tent-only and accessible only by bus and the other half are open to both tents and RVs. All are reservable in advance.
For a backcountry experience with more amenities, there are four wilderness lodges located on private inholdings at the end of the park road. These full-service, all-inclusive lodges are set in stunning, remote locations in the park and include meals, comfortable amenities, and activities like hiking and wildlife viewing right from their front doors.
Getting to Denali
The three main ways to get to Denali National Park and Preserve are by car, train, or bus. The closest major cities to the park are Fairbanks, 120 miles north of the park, and Anchorage, 240 miles south of the park. Driving yourself to Denali is a fantastic way to take in the many sights and charming towns along the way. If you’d rather sit back and relax, the Alaska Railroad offers service to Denali from any stop along the railbelt and drops you off right at the park entrance. Private bus tour operators also offer bus transportation from Anchorage and Fairbanks.
When to visit
The peak time for visiting the park is mid-May through mid-September, when the park busses and other amenities are operational, wildlife viewing opportunities are at their peak, and weather conditions allow for more activities like hiking, biking, backpacking, and camping.
If you’re prepared for harsh, snowy conditions and dazzling beauty, visiting Denali National Park in winter is a unique and rewarding experience. The Park Road and most of the visitor services are closed in winter, though the Murie Science & Learning Center, which serves as Winter Visitor Center, and Sled Dog Kennels are open. Once the snow falls, popular winter activities include cross country skiing, fat tire biking, and snowshoeing along the Park Road and designated winter trails near the park entrance. With long, dark nights and little light pollution, Denali is also a good location for northern lights viewing in winter.
Although generations of Athabascans lived in and traveled through what is now the park, the first permanent non-Native settlement was established in 1905, when a gold rush gave birth to the town of Kantishna. A year later, naturalist and noted hunter Charles Sheldon was stunned by the beauty of the land and horrified at the reckless abandon of the miners and big-game hunters. Sheldon returned in 1907 and traveled the area with guide Harry Karstens in an effort to set up boundaries for a proposed national park. Sheldon was successful and the area was established as Mount McKinley National Park in 1917 with Karstens serving as the park's first superintendent. It was designated an international biosphere reserve in 1976.
As a result of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the park was enlarged to more than 6 million acres and renamed Denali National Park and Preserve. In 2015 President Barack Obama officially renamed Mt. McKinley to Denali, its Athabascan given name, meaning “the Tall One.” Denali National Park and Preserve now comprises an area slightly larger than the state of Massachusetts and is ranked as one of Alaska's top attractions.
Denali National Park and Preserve includes the central, highest portion of the Alaska Range, together with many of the glaciers and glacial valleys running southwards out of the range. The terrain spans boreal forest and Arctic tundra. More than 650 species of flowering plants, shrubs, lichen and moss comprise the vegetation of the park, while coniferous trees, birch and aspen grow in the lowlands. Only plants adapted to long, cold winters and short growing seasons can survive in this subarctic wilderness. Glacially-fed braided rivers, landslides and moving glaciers define the ever-changing landscape of the park.